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Pete Docter Goes 'Up'

Bill Desowitz chats with the Pixar director about his upcoming feature, in which a grumpy old man and an irksome boy in a flying house wind up in a South American adventure.

For Pixar's next release, Up, the challenges included making cloth behave on a caricatured body and bringing Venezuela's Tepui Mountains to life. All images © Disney/Pixar.

For Pixar's next release, Up, the challenges included making cloth behave on a caricatured body and bringing Venezuela's Tepui Mountains to life. All images © Disney/Pixar.

After debuting with the fantastical Monsters, Inc., Pete Docter follows up with Pixar's next feature, Up (opening May 29 from Disney's Buena Vista): a more grounded but still exotic comedy/adventure involving a 78-year-old grumpy old man named Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and an eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell. The director presented Up at Comic-Con in San Diego last weekend, sneaking some footage of the widower and former balloon salesman using his remaining balloons to lift his house up to the sky -- with Russell as a stowaway -- on a trek to Venezuela, where his late wife, Ellie, always wanted to visit.

Docter explained that they encounter the strange and isolated region of the Tepui Mountains, thanks to inspiration from video provided by Production Designer Ralph Eggleston (WALL•E). The story of Up, written by Docter in collaboration with co-director Bob Peterson, was inspired by Docter's correspondence with Disney legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston as a young animator, as well as the fascinating life stories the elderly often provide when you take the opportunity to spend some time with them.

Docter spoke with AWN after his presentation about the challenges of making Up. They're still trying to figure out how to apply main animation solutions such as cloth. For instance, Carl's head is three feet wide and he's five feet tall and he has expansive limbs. How does the cloth behave on such a caricatured body? And how do you make the Tepui come to life in a believable yet stylized way?

Bill Desowitz: This is obviously very different from Monsters, Inc. What were the challenges in figuring out this journey?

Pete Docter: It's not done yet, so I'll speak so far. I think the trick has been where reality stops and fantasy starts. A large part of this film takes place in this jungle of South America, these amazing Tepui tabletop mountains. And these really exist, but most people haven't heard of them. So you have these weird, fantastic plant shapes -- there's one in particular -- where you have these curvy leaves and a stick with a spike ball on top: it looks like something out of Monsters, Inc. It's real! So how do you present that to people where they don't go, "Oh, they're making stuff up again"? We still want the sense that this takes place in the real world -- it's not Dorothy going to Oz. It's almost more of a design challenge at this point.

BD: What helps you with the design challenge?

PD: Research. Having gone down there -- there was a group of 12 of us -- we took tons of pictures, lots of sketching. Even though you might not be familiar with that type of plant, I think there's a believability that you can feel just being a citizen of the world. You start to realize [what's natural] and [what's] a bit more fantastic. And, yeah, all the tools that give you the sense of three-dimensional lighting and textures certainly help... And we're still [struggling with it], but that's part of the fun.

Pete Docter.

Pete Docter.

BD: It certainly looks like a far cry from A Bug's Life.

PD: Especially now knowing what limitations we had then. I didn't work so closely on that one, but now you look at it and there's so much more possible.

BD: And what about the creatures they encounter?

PD: Again, we're trying to find that boundary of how fantastic to go where [the audience says], "I've never seen it, but I believe it."

BD: In terms of expanding stories at Pixar, it's great that you're exploring the theme of the elderly. I know how close you were to the late Joe Grant, and was wondering about his influence on Up.

PD: Well, more as a person, he reflects Carl's wife [Ellie], who's really full of vibrancy about life and is always looking for new things and has interest in everything. But he was a big influence in just being around and watching his mannerisms: the way he'd hold himself and his posture. I actually got to pitch this story to him. I wasn't supposed to, but I did because it was before Disney and Pixar merged. And he really liked it. I got his seal of approval.

BD: Did he provide comments or suggestions?

PD: Yeah, he poked at a lot of things. I should go back and look at those notes. We talked about it two or three times, but I can't remember off the top of my head. He didn't do any drawings for this one, unfortunately.

BD: Carl's head instantly stands out for being so square.

PD: Yeah, and that came out of his personality: the opposite of Joe. He's stuck in his ways -- this is the way I like things. He has the same breakfast for the last 50 years, he has the same schedule. And so everything that happens disrupts him.

BD: And Russell provides Carl with a grandfatherly bonding opportunity?

PD: Yeah, he's not really ready for the whirlwind that a kid is, as few of us are.

BD: What are some of the other interesting design challenges?

PD: We tried to give Ellie, his wife, a circular face. So we've got this square and circle and that's reflected back in the framing of the photographs. There are pictures of them... a square within a circle and vice versa. So we're trying to play with that shape language in a way that doesn't get in your face, but that echoes the themes of the story.

BD: What's it like animating a movie full of humans?

PD: They're always hard. I did a bunch of animation on Toy Story, and, in my opinion, [the humans] were the least successful [part]. It's the whole thing of the "uncanny valley." So we're trying to keep them stylized, but still get the essence of who they are, which, of course, is what animation is all about.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.